Natural mechanisms protecting against cancer

Immunol Lett. 2003 Dec 15;90(2-3):103-22. doi: 10.1016/j.imlet.2003.08.005.


Carcinogenesis is a multistage process. At each step of this process, there are natural mechanisms protecting against development of cancer. The majority of cancers in humans is induced by carcinogenic factors present in our environment including our food. However, some natural substances present in our diet or synthesized in our cells are able to block, trap or decompose reactive oxygen species (ROS) participating in carcinogenesis. Carcinogens can also be removed from our cells. If DNA damage occurs, it is repaired in most of the cases. Unrepaired DNA alterations can be fixed as mutations in proliferating cells only and mutations of very few strategic genes can induce tumor formation, the most relevant are those activating proto-oncogenes and inactivating tumor suppressor genes. A series of mutations and/or epigenetic changes is required to drive transformation of a normal cell into malignant tumor. The apparently unrestricted growth has to be accompanied by a mechanism preserving telomeres which otherwise shorten with succeeding cell divisions leading to growth arrest. Tumor can not develop beyond the size of 1-2mm in diameter without the induction of angiogenesis which is regulated by natural inhibitors. To invade the surrounding tissues epithelial tumor cells have to lose some adhesion molecules keeping them attached to each other and to produce enzymes able to dissolve the elements of the basement membrane. On the other hand, acquisition of other adhesion molecules enables interaction of circulating tumor cells with endothelial cells facilitating extravasation and metastasis. One of the last barriers protecting against cancer is the activity of the immune system. Both innate and adaptive immunity participates in anti-tumor effects including the activity of natural killer (NK) cells, natural killer T cells, macrophages, neutrophils and eosinophils, complement, various cytokines, specific antibodies, and specific T cytotoxic cells. Upon activation neutrophils and macrophages are able to kill tumor cells but they can also release ROS, angiogenic and immunosuppressive substances. Many cytokines belonging to different families display anti-tumor activity but their role in natural anti-tumor defense remains largely to be established.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / genetics
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / immunology
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic / metabolism
  • Cytokines / immunology
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Genes, Tumor Suppressor
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate / immunology
  • Monitoring, Immunologic
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / immunology*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*


  • Cytokines